Legend has it that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was playing golf with some pals from National Periodicals when they bragged to him about the sales on their new comic, The Justice League of America. Goodman, wanting to compete, ordered editor and writer Stan Lee to make a superhero team to rival the Justice League. Stan Lee got together with Jack Kirby and together they came up with the Fantastic Four.
As a concept the Fantastic Four couldn’t be any more different from the Justice League; instead of disparate solo heroes brought together the FF were an ersatz family, united in the moment of their creation. In fact the reality is that the Fantastic Four have more in common with another, earlier Jack Kirby creation - The Challengers of the Unknown.
Fantastic Four the movie - the third attempt at the concept - was kickstarted very much in response to someone else’s success in the same field. But much like the original FF, this version doesn’t simply ape the current status quo of superhero movies. What this film does is something different, something actually sort of in line with the original Challengers of the Unknown. This Fantastic Four is a science fiction movie, and it’s a cracking good one… until the third act when it is dragged kicking and screaming into being a superhero movie and falls apart.
This iteration of the FF is based heavily on the Ultimate Fantastic Four, with young genius Reed Richards and young tough Ben Grimm being best friends from way back and with Reed being inducted into a special program for gifted youth at the Baxter Building. There he works with Victor von Doom, a troubled young genius, and Sue Storm, an icy young genius, and Johnny Storm, a hothead (who is maybe not a genius) to crack interdimensional travel. Together they want to be the first people to step foot on an alien world in another dimension.
For the first two acts this movie hums along. There is a real sense of the wonder of science, of the awe of exploration. Just as in the original comics this team illicitly takes control of their experiment - von Doom, worried that NASA will take their tech, asks if anyone knows who built the Saturn rockets while pointing out that everyone knows Neil Armstrong. Tipsy, impetuous, driven by the glory of breaking boundaries, the team ends up on what is called Planet Zero, and then things go all sorts of wrong.
They go wrong for the movie too. What had been a strong character piece, anchored by intriguing relationships between real, deep characters. I was thrilled watching these characters bounce off each other, with each actor bringing their own twist to classic archetypes I have known my whole life. No, the Reed Richards played by Miles Teller isn’t the pipe-chomping father figure from the original Marvel comics, but I see how this character can become that guy. Teller’s Reed isn’t some kind of STEM casualty, lost in a robotic world of science, and he isn’t a totally socially inept doofus. He’s a nice guy, slightly clueless, completely sweet, used to being smart as hell and totally misunderstood.
He’s the best character in the film, a brainiac who isn’t rooted in the modern neuro-atypical vision of scientists. He’s rivaled - in all ways - by von Doom; Toby Kebbel brings a sneering superiority to the character that is never cartoonish. Doom isn’t bad, he’s cynical, he’s distrustful.. and he’s a little egomaniacal. He’s a layered, textured character, and this iteration of him is - for the first two-thirds of the movie - among the best I have ever seen.
Kate Mara’s Susan Storm is more the distracted, detached genius type. We know that Reed and Sue get married, but there’s not much more than a hint of that future here. In fact Sue is weirdly sidelined in a way that troubled me tremendously and should launch a thousand thinkpieces - she isn’t part of the team that travels to the other dimension. Why exclude Sue? From a character standpoint I get it - the boys are BOYS, and they’re too bro-y to include the girl - but the movie itself needed to address and deal with this. Sue still gets powers, but in a way that violates the spirit of the original stories. And in a way that feels too much like shuffling the woman to the side.
I expected Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny Storm to be the breakout of the movie, and while he’s good he never quite has a scene that truly takes him to the next level. This is Reed’s movie, and Johnny is there to support. Jordan does hothead exceptionally well, and later in the film when the team is trying to cure themselves his resistance makes sense, and Jordan plays it perfectly. Why would he want to give up this power?
Finally there’s Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, sidelined to an almost terminal degree. The Thing works better in action than feared (and his voice is appropriately modulated) but Grimm himself doesn’t get enough screentime, especially before the transformation. There’s a whole stretch of the film where you would think Ben had simply been forgotten, until Reed brings him in at the last minute to challenge the unknown with him. It’s a pity because Bell works - he’s scrawnier than my vision of Ben Grimm, but he has the quiet intensity of a guy who can handle himself but would prefer not to resort to that.
All of these characters - even the shortchanged ones! - work, and they work in different permutations with layers of complexity between them. The film throws a great wrench into it all in the immediate aftermath of the accident that gives them powers, leaving the group distrustful and split and emotionally damaged… and then the movie rushes to a CGI climax that is unearned, narratively incoherent and, worst of all, detached from the emotional stakes built up for the previous 70 minutes. There are moments in the finale that work - Doom striding through a military base exploding people’s heads is great - but eventually it all comes together in a CGI landscape where characters throw CGI at each other without a sense of reality, geography, physics or even meaning. Doom is trying to destroy the world for reasons that make no sense in a method that makes no sense and the fight that ensues is low on stakes, drama and meaning.
Josh Trank approaches this film with a refreshing eye that is focused squarely on the people in it. The film has an extended sequence where the characters first discover their powers that is extraordinary not just because of the imagery - which is dark and terrifying - but because these characters are hurting, and we like the characters. But the film doesn’t dwell on this - it mixes the body horror with wonder, and the movie focuses on the resiliency of these people as they deal with their strange new lives.
This is why the ending is such a letdown. For the first two-thirds Trank, working from a script by Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg (and himself), is able to craft a reality that is based in humanity, and then it’s all thrown away for a plug-and-play CGI finale. It’s heartbreaking that all of this is thrown away at the end; the characters’ tangled, complicated emotional relationships are never resolved, Doom’s own truly complex story is simply tossed into a portal in the sky, and the entire thing races to an unsatisfying conclusion. This movie could been better and should have been better, and the proof is right there in the first two acts.
As much of a letdown as the ending is, I like the actors here. I like this iteration of the characters. I like this world, one that has a foot in reality and a foot in the sort of gee-whiz scifi where whiz kids build and use a dimensional transporter. Yes, Fantastic Four faceplants, but there’s too much good in here to dismiss it completely. There’s too much quality, too much talent on display to hope that this iteration joins the rest on the trash heap of history. What the movie gets wrong is infuriating and disappointing, but what it gets right completely captures what I want a movie like this to be.